Trauma is an event that severely threatens our physical survival or safety or our emotional and psychological integrity and safety. A traumatic event frightens or shocks us, endangers our long-term well-being, causes us to fear for our life, safety, or sanity, or causes deep emotional pain, confusion, or fear. Trauma probably affects most people at some point in our lives--we may experience a car accident, suddenly lose a loved-one to death, experience a criminal act (armed robbery, sexual assault, etc.), be subject to serious emotional or physical abuse, live or serve in a place where war or terrorism occur, or in some other way be subject to intense fear, either for a moment or for a long period of time. Some people experience repeated trauma (such as victims of repeated abuse as a child, people who live in war zones, etc.). Some psychologists consider birth to be a traumatizing experience. Many people recover from trauma through the support of family and friends and bounce back with great resiliency. For others, the recovery process is a longer journey and for some, the support, guidance, and assistance of professionals is fundamental to their healing.
Symptoms of PTSD
To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have experienced a traumatic event in which they felt they were in severe danger or witnessed someone else in severe danger. Symptoms of PTSD can include:
Studies indicate that 3.5 percent of the U.S. population will experience PTSD in any given 12-month period, and 35 percent of these cases can be classified as “severe.” One in four combat veterans has PTSD and a third of rape survivors have PTSD. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men, but they are also more likely to experience traumatic events such as domestic violence and rape. The costs of treating PTSD are in the billions of dollars annually in the United States.
Therapy or counseling can help people who have experienced trauma and those diagnosed with PTSD make sense of their experiences and feelings, develop plans to stay safe, learn healthy coping skills, and connect with other resources and support. If you experience trauma, talking about it with a professional as soon as possible can help diminish the chances of lasting ill-affects. Many therapists have specialized training to facilitate trauma recovery, and may use techniques such as EMDR therapy, critical incident stress debriefing, or somatic therapies to help their clients process traumatic events.
Sometimes trauma leads to long-term personal difficulties, especially if the traumatic event was not able to be processed in the immediately after it occurred. The painful or frightening event may be replayed in memories, daydreams, and nightmares, and can significantly impair a person's ability to function and achieve emotional well-being. Therapy can help people heal from trauma even long after the traumatic event took place, and unresolved trauma is one of the most common reasons people seek counseling or therapy.
According to trauma therapist Susanne Dillmann, "We may avoid situations or people that remind us of the trauma. We may be emotionally numb, depressed, or anxious. Sometimes, people turn to drugs to numb feelings of terror that last for weeks, months, and in some cases, years after a trauma. If you experience such feelings, thoughts, or behaviors after a trauma, know that such experiences are very human and nothing to be ashamed of. Through the assistance of a trained professional, one can heal from the consequences of a trauma."
This is a clip from an educational DVD, Making Peace With Chronic PTSD: Marla's Story. It takes a fascinating look into chronic PTSD with trauma expert, Frank Ochberg MD, once the Associate Director for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and Dr. Marla Handy, a former university lecturer with a difficult history of chronic PTSD as a result of childhood abuse and sexual trauma. This DVD is being used for counseling education, and by clinicians, social workers, educators, and trauma survivors. You can buy the full DVD from Gift From Within, a nonprofit organization for survivors of trauma and victimization. Video is copyright Gift From Within and is used by special permission for GoodTherapy.org from Gift From Within.
Ricky, 24, has recently returned from Iraq where he saw combat. He says he was doing fine until last week, when a robbery occurred in a local store while he was there. Suddenly, memories of combat flooded his senses, and he was paralyzed by them. Now he has nightmares about Iraq, but images of home get “mixed up in there.” Not only does Ricky feel overwhelmed and anxious about these flashbacks, he feels guilty for surviving while two of his friends did not, and guilty for not stopping the robbery at home. Talking about his feelings helps somewhat; focusing on ways to stay safe helps as well. Ricky’s guilt is addressed by exploring the choices Ricky has made and their motivations. Ricky’s beliefs about what it means to be a man, and his high expectations of himself are also explored. The therapist helps Ricky make peace with his own mortality, and teaches Ricky relaxation skills. Ricky asks for a psychiatric referral, and takes anti-anxiety medications to sleep a few times a week. He is also referred to a support group. A year after his first visit, he is no longer taking medications, and is feeling more hopeful, though he still struggles at times with intense grief about the war.
Patricia, 39, is a highly anxious person. A full history reveals severe abuse as a child, which Patricia is reluctant to revisit. The therapist allows several sessions to go by before bringing it up again, and when she does, Patricia becomes very upset and angry. Patricia finally agrees that her reaction indicates the abuse is still “dogging” her, and she agrees to a referral for EMDR. The EMDR process helps her being a real recovery from the abuse, and her anxiety diminishes considerably.
If you are a writer or blogger who has had personal experience with posttraumatic stress, please consider sharing your story with other GoodTherapy.org readers through Share Your Story. If your story is accepted, it will be published alongside other thoughtful and inspirational mental health stories on The Good Therapy Blog.
Last updated: 02-05-2014
Post Traumatic Stress / Trauma Articles